Police Cannot Detain Drivers for Random Dog Sniffs

On April 21, 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court rendered an important decision that can affect law enforcement tactics across the country. The decision will limit the common practice of police officers to detain people for the purpose of allowing a police drug dog to sniff around a vehicle.

In Rodriguez v. State, the Court examined a circumstance in which an officer made a lawful stop of a driver for a violation of Nebraska driving laws. After the officer completed all of the steps of investigating / enforcing the traffic violation, the officer asked the driver for consent to walk a drug dog around the vehicle. The driver refused. The officer then continued to detain the driver for another officer to arrive. The extension of the detention was about 7 to 8 minutes.

The Supreme Court remanded the case based on a concern that the extension of the length of time of the detention must be justified by its own reasonable suspicion. It has been well settled in Fourth Amendment law that a detention must be strictly circumscribed by the circumstances that justify its initiation. Once those reasons no longer exist, the reasonableness of the detention is over. The Court remanded the case to a lower court to consider whether the objective facts of the case justified the detention into the period of time during which the dog sniff took place. The fact that the extended detention was less than 10 minutes was not the determining factor.

The legal principle in this case can carry over into some police DWI investigations. Often, police stop people for lawful reasons that have no relationship to suspecting the driver may be driving while intoxicated. In a case where officers are just curious to see if a driver may be DWI, without specific facts that provide reasonable suspicion for a drunk driving investigation, holding a driver for field sobriety tests could violate a driver’s right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

Most commonly, people are detained further after an officer smells alcohol, hears an admission to drinking, or sees things like red watery eyes or hears slurred speech. Texas courts have extended wide latitude to officers to detain people for DWI investigation when only a couple of those observations exist. The best DWI defense lawyers must examine these circumstances carefully when evaluating a DWI case.

The Rodriguez case sends a message to police that holding someone roadside just for the purpose of fishing for evidence of some other offense that “may” be occurring is not allowed under the Constitution. Detaining a person for any amount of time is illegal if there is no basis for it.